Mexican food straddles foreign, US cuisines

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Mexican food holds a unique position in the American culinary scene.

It is ethnic but mainstream, exotic but also partly homegrown and, according to a recent study by the National Restaurant Association, eaten regularly by about half of those surveyed.

The NRA surveyed 1,000 adults earlier this year for its first study in 16 years on consumers’ relationships with different “ethnic” cuisines — defined broadly as any cuisine originating in a different country or within a specific region of the United States.

Mexican cuisine has its origins both in a different country and among Americans of Mexican descent who developed their own cuisine north of the border. For example, some food scholars believe that burritos were developed by farm workers in the Southwestern United States who wrapped cooked beans in tortillas to take to the fields. The modern, fast-casual-style burrito stuffed with rice was derived from the “Mission style” burritos of San Francisco. Meanwhile, the green chile of New Mexico is unique to that state, and the deep-fried chimichanga likely originated in Arizona.

Other dishes, such as tacos and mole Poblano, clearly originate from Mexico.

Half of those surveyed by the NRA said they eat Mexican food at least once a month, and another 31 percent said they eat it occasionally, a few times a year. Among frequent ethnic cuisine eaters, defined as people who eat at least four different ethnic cuisines each month, 86 percent said they eat Mexican food at least once a month.

Mexican food is popular in households with children, 83 percent of whom eat Mexican food at least occasionally, and 63 percent of whom eat it frequently.

Mexican food is particularly popular in the West, which is also where most Mexican-Americans live. According to the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of Americans of Mexican heritage live in that region, particularly in California, which is home to 36 percent of Mexican-Americans.

That’s in line with another NRA finding, that 43 percent of respondents said the ethnic foods they like to eat are tied to their family’s “ancestry or heritage.”
According to Pew, 11 percent of Americans define themselves as Mexican-American or were born in Mexico.

Among people from the West surveyed by the NRA, 62 percent said they eat Mexican food at least once a month. By contrast, 36 percent of respondents from the Northeast said they regularly eat Mexican food, although another 37 percent said they eat it occasionally.

Among people who said they eat Mexican food frequently or occasionally, 57 percent said they eat it in full-service restaurants, compared with 37 percent who eat it at limited-service restaurants. However, among people ages 44 and younger, more respondents said they prepare Mexican food at their home or someone else’s home than said they eat it in restaurants, possibly indicating opportunity for even further growth in the burgeoning fast-casual Mexican segment.

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